Build Commitment by Building Consensus

“I’ve got no strings to hold me down, to make me fret or make me frown. I had strings but now I’m free, there are no strings on me.” That song from Pinocchio played through my head two years ago when my investment club finally disbanded. I had been the president, or really the “puppet,” of the person who had started the club years before I joined. I had been a capable administrator; I got the agendas out and did the proper paperwork and notices, but as a leader, I wasn’t so good. The meetings had devolved into disrespectful eye-rolling and petty bickering behind the scenes. Oh, and the club lost money too.

Picture this: Ten people sitting in an upscale informal living room, a financial report displayed on the big screen TV, and Madam Puppet Master, a stylish, middle-aged woman with the personality of a bulldog, holding court:

 “I have spent countless hours preparing the education program. And you can’t even spend half an hour a month reviewing the reports? What? You didn’t want to miss American Idol reruns? Your dog was sick again? I’m only asking for half an hour of preparation. I really don’t know if I should keep doing this.”

Her outburst was met with a few awkward moments of stunned silence. Nobody crossed the Puppet Master—nobody wanted to face her wrath. I think I and others made some comment about how much we did appreciate her efforts, but it felt rather forced.

On the positive side, the meetings were very efficient. We usually just agreed with whatever Madam Puppet Master wanted. Oh, sure, we voted on things, but often it was just a formality. At best, we complied with the Puppet Master’s wishes. But, the commitment was lacking. Compliance is not commitment. To have a truly successful group, you need commitment. How do you get commitment in a group? People will commit to—they will buy into—what they create. You can create commitment, not just compliance, with consensus.

 Consensus decision-making is a process which seeks agreement that is acceptable enough so that all members of the group agree to support (or buy into) a decision. Consensus does not mean an absence of conflict. It means that team members are willing to take the time to work through it. It also does not mean manipulating team members into agreement. No puppet masters allowed!

Building consensus isn’t always easy, but there are phrases and language that you can use to encourage consensus. These techniques can be used effectively even when you are trying to build consensus with just one other person! Many of the following concepts are taken from a book I highly recommend, Make Meetings Matter (Charlie Hawkins, 2008) http://www.makemeetingsmatter.com/ .

1. Frame the decision as a “we” goal

“What are the decisions we need to make?”

2. Encourage participation

“Help me understand. . .”

“So, what do you think?”

 3. Use reflective listening, reflecting and reframing statements

Depending on the situation, you often can reflect back someone’s actual content, or you may paraphrase the feeling behind someone’s words. Often, you may need to ask a question for clarification. The challenge is to try not to blatantly voice your opinion on what the person has said. Also, be careful of your body language and tone of voice (eye-rolling, sarcastic tone of voice, smirks).

For example, if I could have a re-do on the previously “Madam Puppet Master out-burst:

“I have spent countless hours preparing the education program. And you can’t even spend half an hour a month reviewing the reports? What? You didn’t want to miss American Idol reruns? Your dog was sick again? I’m only asking for half an hour of preparation. I really don’t know if I should keep doing this.”

I might respond in the following way: “Joan, you sound frustrated that you are putting in so much time and some people aren’t even doing the minimum.” Or, “Joan, it sounds like you have made the club a big priority in your life and just want others to at least do a little.” Or, “Joan, what, bottom line, do you think people should get out of reviewing the reports?”

4. Summarize frequently

“As I understand it. . .”

“So, this is what we agree on. . .”

“These are the areas we still need to discuss. . .”

5. If consensus appears near, test consensus

“How are we doing? ”

“Is there anything that is still a problem?”

 “I’m sensing that we are in general agreement . . . who’s got some outstanding concerns?”

Consider using non-verbal hand signals to take quick, informal straw polls. The “Thumbs” method is very simple. Thumbs Up = agreement; Thumbs Sideways = have concerns, but can support. Thumbs Down = don’t agree and won’t support.  Another common non-verbal hand signal is the “Fist-to-Five” rating technique in which people rank their agreement from a fist (0 fingers, completely disagree) to five fingers (complete agreement). If consensus appears near Ask “live with and support” questions:

“Can everyone live with and support the decision?”

“Is there anyone who can not live with or support the decision?”

Consensus will take time and may not always be the best way to make decisions, especially if group members have deep, fundamental divisions. However, when it is used effectively it results in greater satisfaction and acceptance among group members. People will buy into decisions they help make. Build commitment by building consensus.

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About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

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